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Empire Abroad, Prisons At Home: Dark Connections


It is commonplace for left writers and activists to note stark contradictions between the declared objectives of United States foreign policy and the harsh imperial realities of that policy. It is difficult, we note, with good reason, for thinking persons to take seriously the US government’s statements for freedom, justice, democracy and security and against terrorism, authoritarianism, violence, and insecurity when Uncle Sam’s policy makers:

· Fuel the global arms race and engage in reckless saber-rattling military actions and pronouncements (most notably the “Axis of Evil” address) that mock international law and threaten to produce a new global war

· Undercut nuclear arms control agreements to advance a dangerously destabilizing Star Wars scheme as part of the agenda for the US-dominated militarization of space.

· Transfer nearly unimaginable and unprecedented sums of wealth – hundreds of billions of dollars – to world’s history’s most fearsome military establishment and an evil axis of “defense” corporations in a planet where at least two billion people live in desperate poverty, on less than two dollars a day.

· Advance a toxic agenda of corporate-and finance-capitalist globalization that polarizes wealth inequality and thereby increases political, military, and ecological instability in a planet that is already harshly unequal, fragile, and violence-torn

· Inflict violence and terror, both directly and indirectly, on masses of people the world over, even in some of the most desperate lands on earth, like Afghanistan

· Support (fund, equip, train, etc.) authoritarian regimes that terrorize and repress significant portions of their subject and/or adjacent/colonized populations, as in (to name just a few examples among many) Columbia, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekastan, Israel, and Indonesia.

· Restrict the flow of information about the consequences of US overseas policies and plan the creation of an openly Orwellian disinformation agency to shape foreign perceptions of the US and US policy through lies and propaganda

· Maintain many hundreds of military bases and installations in more than 50 “sovereign” nations across the world, each serving as a powerful symbol of America’s status as the world’s unrivalled imperial master and many providing the source for considerable resentment of that status.

· Strategize to overturn the official repudiation of the use of nuclear weapons in a first strike capacity.

It is important, however, to also keep our eyes on the US domestic scene, where the chasm between declared goals and harsh social realities is also great. That scene, after all, is where the true social and political taproot of dangerous imperial projects and the authoritarian values, paradigms, policies, and practices that inform such projects are always found.

Consider, for example, the startling expansion of a racist mass incarceration state before and then through the period that has witnessed the United States’ emergence of as the world’s unchallenged superpower. In a contradiction that Orwell could certainly appreciate, the nation that proudly proclaims itself homeland and headquarters of world freedom now imprisons 730,000 people per year.

Between 1972 and 2000, the number of people behind bars in the United States rose from 330,000 to nearly 2 million. In the latter year, the number of adults under “correctional supervision” – behind bars, on parole or on probation – reached a new historical high point of 6.47 million, equaling one in every 32 adults.

The rate of incarceration in the US is 699 per 100,000. The next highest rate in the world is Russia at 644 and the American rate is six times higher than those of Britain, Canada, or France. “No other Western democratic country has ever imprisoned this proportion of its population,” says Norval Morris, a professor emeritus at University of Chicago Law School. He calls the number of people held behind bars in the United States America “appalling.”

The numbers deserve serious reflection in a time when official US propaganda for the masses – constructed by elite policymakers and political intellectuals who show that they know much better when talking to each other – claims that the September 11th attackers were motivated by fear and hatred of American unparalleled “freedom.”

The majority of those entering the inherently violent space of America’s prison nation, where as many as 7 percent of inmates are raped, do so for nonviolent crimes. Between 1980 and 1997, the Justice Policy Institute reports, “the number of violent offenders committed to state prison nearly doubled (up 82 percent),” but “the number of nonviolent offenders tripled (up 207 percent).” People who committed nonviolent crimes account for more than three fourths of the nation’s massive increase in prisoners between 1978 and 1996.

US correctional statistics and expenditures become even more “appalling” when broken down by race. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 42% of state prison inmates in 1979 but less than a third by the end of the 20th century. Nearly 10 percent of black non-Hispanic men 25 to 29 years old were in prison in 2000 compared to 1.1 percent of whites in the same age group. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that a young black man age 16 in 1996 faces 29% of serving time in prison during his life.

Thanks to felony disenfranchisement laws in the US and to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, a remarkable one and a half million African-Americans, or 13% of black men do not possess the right to vote. That rate is seven times the national average and it may well have made the difference for Bush in his 2000 “election.”

In my home state of Illinois, there are nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than in the state’s public universities.

To house its’ dramatically rising number of predominantly black prisoners, Illinois has built 20 adult prisons since 1980, all located downstate, where incarceration provides employment, census count, and tax dollars for thousands in predominantly white prison towns that welcome mass incarceration as the solution to local unemployment produced by the closing of factories, mines, mills, and farms.

Some liberals and leftists hoped that the end of the Cold War would bring a long “peace dividend.” With the defeat of Uncle Sam’s “evil empire, ” we prayed, surplus social capital previously spent on weapons, troops, and military bureaucracy would now be freed up for progressive social and environmental investment.

These hopes seem naïve when viewed in the horrifying clarity of hindsight, Military budgets are now back to Cold War levels and beyond. Social and especially welfare expenditures on the poor have fallen consistently through a decade dedicated to neo-liberal principles: state intervention for the wealthy and “free” market discipline for the poor.

The masters of American domestic policy chose a new social program for America’s most disadvantaged citizens: lockdown, not a hand up. Fittingly enough, the number of American prisoners (predominantly male) is now roughly equal to the number of American welfare households (headed predominantly by females).

If anything, some communities report a post-Cold War prison dividend, as mass incarceration provided jobs to communities where base-closings and related changes in military strategy resulting from the Soviet collapse led to employment declines.

Mass incarceration’s elite apologists offer curious explanations for America’s great racist lockdown. They claim that mass incarceration arose as a rational response to rising crime during the 1970s and 1980s. Crime is falling since the early 1990s, they say, because “prison works”: it locks up and deters criminals. The prison population is disproportionately black, they claim, simply because, as celebrated black conservative linguist John McWhorter puts it, blacks’ “proportion of the prison population neatly reflects the rate at which they commit crimes.”

While it provides comfort to the privileged, the official explanation does not explain why crime rates increased in the 1970s and the late 1980s when the incarceration rate grew at the same rate as in the 1990s. It does not tell us why mass incarceration continued apace through the 1990s even as crime fell.

It ignores the likelihood that other factors, including the record-length economic expansion of the 1990s, provide better explanations than incarceration for declining crime.

It sits awkwardly next to international data showing that US citizens are just as likely to be victimized by crime as citizens in European countries who jail and imprison relatively tiny percentages of their population.

The real forces behind “appalling” prison growth in the “land of the free” include the shift from indeterminate to determinant sentencing that began in the 1970s, when lawmakers began restricting the discretion of judges and parole boards to decide how long prisoners stay behind bars. Under the earlier system traditional in American criminal justice practice, judges set minimum and maximum sentences and parole boards had considerable leeway to determine when prisoners were released on the basis of “good behavior” and related evidence of rehabilitation.

As the ruling paradigm of American penology shifted from rehabilitation to purely punitive incapacitation during the 1970s and 1980s, sentences grew, a development reinforced by the passage of “truth-in-sentencing” laws in the 1990s. States created new criminal offences and stiffer sentence for crimes already on the books. They also dramatically increased the number of police officers on the streets, something that led to more arrests and to more crimes being reported. They also began returning high number of parolees to prison on technical parole violations.

It’s all strongly linked to Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, “which is in fact,” writes Mark Crispin Miller, “a race war waged by legal means.” The stiffer sentences and policy-driven arrests and prosecutions have been strongly concentrated in the drug area. The number of drug offenders in American prisons and jails increased more eleven times (1040 percent) between 1980 and 1997.

While nearly three fourths of illicit drug users are of European-American ancestry and 15 percent are black, blacks make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges. They are more than 4 of every 10 drug offenders in federal prison and almost 60 percent of those in state prison.

At its moment of launch, policymakers, including Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, knew very well that the war on drugs, whose resulting arrests and incarceration are much more policy-driven than those for violent crime, would lead to a dramatic increase in black and Hispanic incarceration rates.

America’s racist mass incarceration binge is policy-driven.

I’ll never forget the day I naively sought to “speak truth to power” (an inherently futile endeavor) on this policy and its consequences in my state. As a member of a Chicago-based council of advisers seeking to reduce criminal recidivism and help ex-prisoners’ reintegrate into society, I was invited to make our constituents’ case to Matt Bettenhausen, Illinois’ “Deputy Governor for Criminal Justice and Public Safety.” Nine of us presented our findings and proposals in a pleasant Chicago conference room on a cold December morning.

Bettenhausen, who hails from a local family of accomplished racecar drivers, arrived in time only for the last talk. He apologized for his lateness, explaining that he had been unavoidably meeting with the state’s Attorney General on the war against terrorism.

His eyes beamed with pride as he told us that he has become much busier since his appointment as the state’s “first-ever Homeland Security Coordinator. ” He regaled us with the latest reports on the progress of the US military campaign in Afghanistan. “Wow,” a participant muttered, “he watches CNN.”

After establishing our issue’s relative insignificance, he told us that Illinois governor George Ryan would not be reversing his recent decision to eliminate higher education and vocational training for prisoners from the state’s budget. The cuts, he noted, were compelled by the “post-September economic downturn” – a questionable and rather imperial dating of an overdue downturn in the business cycle.

Tires squealing, he raced off to another meeting related to the war on terror. This was a pit stop the Homeland Security Coordinator didn’t need!

I was reminded of James Madison’s comment that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”

This, alas, is only one of many powerful if sometimes subtle lines of continuity, connection, and consistency between American global imperialism and American domestic mass incarceration. Among the many dark connections, consider the following: · Like the imperial foreign policy that preceded and then expanded after the September attacks, mass incarceration is anti-democratic. This is most obviously true in terms of its consequences for its immediate victims (prisoners) but is true even in terms of the remarkably slight role that the majority of Americans play in shaping policy. Recent polling data suggests that most Americans reject the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders and support rehabilitation and alternative sentencing and diversion measures over the costly and counter-productive strategy of mass incarceration.

· Like the victims of America’s incarceration regime, the targets and victims of US foreign policy are very disproportionately “people of color” (ie non-whites). It is certainly more than mere coincidence that a nation which targets minority “crime in the streets” but takes a relatively mild approach to predominantly white middle- and upper-class “crime in the suites” also denounces Middle Eastern “terrorism” when it is carried out by swarthy Arabs but turns a relatively blind eye to the far more deadly “police actions” of the region’s one state peopled and ruled by persons of European ancestry. One could give many more examples from US foreign policy. · Like the worst aspects of that policy, domestic mass incarceration is part of a vicious policy circle that feeds upon itself in the fashion of a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. America’s commitment to imperial militarism and corporate-financial globalization produces instability, poverty, and violence around the world, providing endless pretexts for the illusory “corrections” provided by more US empire. Domestic mass incarceration furthers the impoverishment, demoralization, and destabilization of America’s most disadvantaged communities and families, creating conditions and expanding recruits to inner-city crime, which provides the pretext for yet more non-corrective corrections expansion. · Like the imperial project, the domestic lock up is remarkably expensive and regressive and carries huge social-democratic opportunity costs paid for by American taxpayers. Both policies divert billions of dollars from social programs that might tackle endemic poverty and inequality and thereby eliminate the need for punitive, vengeful, and authoritarian policies. Rewards go especially to a relatively small minority of private corporate contractors: the military and prison industrial complexes, which are not devoid of interlocking relationships of financial, social, intellectual, and technological capital.

· Both policies recruit significant rank-and-file constituencies thanks to their role in producing relatively de-concentrated local economic development and employment opportunities for lower to lower-middle-class persons. Those constituencies’ often difficult economic situation in an age of deindustrialization and top-down class warfare encourages them to enter high-stress positions (prison guard, infantryman) in potentially dangerous and atavistic settings that most people of greater advantage (leaving aside tourists like upper-class Vietnam War veteran Oliver Stone) naturally avoid.

· Because they are both rooted in and reflective of the desperate, egoistic, and inherently short-term, parasitic, socially dependent (dispossessed), and profit-centered calculations of the capitalist system, the prison- and military-industrial complexes both take on toxic lives of their own. They quickly lose touch with their own purported noble objectives (peace, stability, and the rest) and develop a vested interest in the perpetuation of the very conditions they are officially supposed to eliminate.

· Both policies and the mass public confusion (thankfully beginning to fade somewhat on prison and the war on drugs) that encourages or at least permits them are dangerously fed by a powerful and inflammatory barrage of biased media coverage. This deeply reactionary coverage provides a steady flow of de-contextualized images and sound bites to the public about the savage inhumanity of disproportionately dark-skinned murderers, rapists, rioters, terrorists, drug dealers, gang-bangers, and other assorted dangerous outlaws at home and abroad.

· Both policies are fed and rationalized by the War on Drugs. Both at home and abroad, this war’s chief designers have a very special preference for targeting the weak, the “colored” and the poor (inner city black crack and marijuana users and marginal indigenous Colombian coca farmers, for example) and leaving alone the rich, white, and powerful. The latter include the heads of leading offshore financial corporations that profit from drug profits and the chiefs of American tobacco corporations, whose product kills far more people than the Reagan and post-Reagan era devil drug cocaine. Without the War, of course, manufacture and trade of the illegal substances whose harmful consequences US policymakers obsessively claim to abhor would be far less profitable.

· Both policies are strongly related to the US policy of corporate globalization. While that policy provides pretext, necessity, and rationalization for the imperial project (as noted above), it also provides essential context for American deindustrialization. The resulting loss of good jobs for people without higher educational degrees is a fundamental cause of the deepening crisis of inner city life, creating fertile soil for the rise of “criminal” behavior and an urban drug trade that provides pretexts for racially disparate mass incarceration. It creates hunger for almost any kind of job growth, even that provided by mass incarceration, in predominantly white “downstate” (Illinois) or alternately “upstate” (as in New York or Michigan) prison communities. Those communities have turned, toxically, to the criminalized urban “underclass” as the raw material that provides the ticket to their little piece of the American dream or nightmare.

There are many more connections that could be made between and among these and other factors that feed and further both resurgent US imperialism and the domestic prison craze. These are enough, however, to suggest how darkly perfect and appropriate it is that the official figurehead of that imperial expansion, George W. Bush, had only recently – prior to his incarceration-assisted appointment to the US Presidency – come, as Governor of Texas, to oversee, in Molly Ivins’ words, “the largest prison system on the planet earth.”

As Madison knew, there is an intimate, dialectically inseparable connection between prisons and repression at home and empire abroad.

Concerned Americans owe it to themselves and their brothers and sisters around the world to make and act upon the dark connection

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